March 28, 2023

McKenzielee Blog

Wicked Clever House Experts

Students at the private school Xavier build rooftop garden

4 min read

Robin Twymon’s aquaponics course at the private school Xavier is in high demand.

Located in Uptown, the private school recently moved to a multistory office building where students have the unique opportunity to grow vegetables and herbs on the parking garage’s roof under Twymon’s direction.

“One thing that we love about the class itself is that we’re authentic,” Twymon said. “I’m extremely proud as an instructor of such phenomenal kids that we’re the only school in the state of Texas with a rooftop garden.”

The plants start growing in the student’s fifth-floor classroom that overlooks the Galleria area. The plants grow in PVC pipes or a make-shift greenhouse in the back of the classroom. The students also try and keep fish for nutrients for the plants.

“Unfortunately, some fish have since passed,” student Leo Gordon said. “But our greenhouse by far is what does the best, but since it did so well we’re suffering from success and have taken all the plants out and moved them to the roof.”

Students grow Bok Choy, pear tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, and plan on growing more as they learn how to adjust for Texas’ weather, the challenges of growing on concrete, and how to properly install solar panels to keep the plants watered.

When the students entered the garden, the first thing they did is get on their knees and begin breaking up the soil with their hands. Even though their clothes got dirty, they were all smiling and hard at work and took pride in their flourishing garden.

“I teach them to use their hands and break up the clumps of soil,” Twymon said. “When it’s broken up, the roots can truly move and really take hold and actually grow. That’s a whole other level of science that people don’t get when you’re just talking about it.”

The plants are growing in soil on top of mulch, all of which are on top of concrete. Last summer, when temperatures were at their peak, the concrete was hot enough to burn the roots of some of the plants. The students learned to raise the plants and construct solar panels that power a water system that continuously waters the plants so they don’t die.

The garden, Twymon says, is entirely student-run.

“They do this on their own,” Twymon said. “If they have a bad day, they just come up to the roof and chill, have lunch, and relax.”

Even though Xavier has a low student-to-teacher ratio, students had to sign up early to get into Twymon’s course. Aquaponics isn’t a mandatory science at Xavier but some students are willing to take it anyway and double up on their science credits.

“We’re constantly learning, but it also doesn’t feel like it at all,” student Lauren Westfall said.

Twymon said Xavier was proactive in creating the course and allowing the students to build a garden on the roof. Aquaponics started as a club but morphed into a course that offers a fourth-level science credit.

Twymon has been an educator for 20 years and received a doctorate in counseling education and two master’s degrees in environmental science and chemistry. Twymon says whenever he introduces aquaponics to students it always captivates them.

“The more I expose kids to different levels of aquaponics and how you can actually do it,” Twymon said, “to see a kid’s eyes light up when they’re learning something, and getting their hands dirty, and actually doing the work, that’s the biggest reward in the world.”

Twymon says aquaponics also reaches students he doesn’t teach because other students see their classmates learning on the roof and want to participate. The juniors who graduate from the course but are still at Xavier next semester will certainly still take care of the garden.

“Twymon will grill us if we don’t,” student Elise O’Halla said.

The rooftop garden has plans to grow in size and scope, according to Twymon. There is a possibility of adopting pigs and goats from the Houston Humane Society and the school is expecting more solar panels.

They are also trying to solidify a partnership with Texas A&M, said Twymon. The class recently went on a field trip to A&M to see their agriculture department and learn about all the things they can do with aquaponics.

“We just want to make sure the kids are truly exposed to everything that’s out there in the field of aquaponics and the field of agriculture,” Twymon said.

For the fish that died, the students held fish funerals on the roof.

“We would have a eulogy and a song picked out,” student Linnea Goncalves said. “Everybody was disappointed when I suggested we should pick ‘never gonna give you up’ as the song.”

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